Herman Atkins, the Innocence Project and a paperweight

When I read the Publisher’s Marketplace notice below, I popped up from my desk chair and walked around the room, in a sort of uncontainable excitement:

Herman Atkins’s WRONGFULLY CONVICTED, RIGHTFULLY COMMITTED, the true story of the author, who spent 12 years in prison for a rape he did not commit; he was released due to the efforts of The Innocence Project, secured an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree and is in his second year of law school in San Diego, to Glenn Yeffeth at BenBella Books, for publication in Spring 2017, by Sara Camilli at The Sara Camilli Agency (World).

Back in the late 1990’s, I was working for Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, the two lawyers who founded The Innocence Project. I met Herman Atkins shortly after the Project’s years’ efforts got him exonerated and released from the California prison where he had spent 12 years for a rape he didn’t commit.

I hadn’t worked directly on Herman’s Innocence Project case; I didn’t work at the Project itself which at that time functioned out of Cardozo Law School. I was, however, aware of the cases the Project was working on: the case work for each client was supervised either by Barry or Peter, and Herman was Peter’s case. And after Herman’s exoneration and release, it was Cochran Neufeld & Scheck (the name of the firm I worked for) that filed a civil rights action in California on Herman’s behalf. (Herman eventually won a $2 million award as compensation for his wrongful conviction and imprisonment.)

My minimal role in most Innocence Project cases involved maintaining some files, answering the phone and caring very deeply. That was it.

I first met Herman at an Innocence Project event connected, if I remember correctly, to the publication of Actual Innocence, a mighty book written by Jim Dwyer, Barry and Peter, about a number of the wrongfully convicted men whose cases represented the first of the Innocence Project cases.

I was talking to Jim (Dwyer) when I was introduced to Herman, a tall, handsome guy in a nice suit (I think it was three piece but I may be wrong about that detail). To my surprise, Herman handed me a beautifully decorative gift bag, and thanked me.

I was embarrassed. “But Herman,” I told him, “I didn’t do anything for you. The Innocence Project handled your case.”

“You accepted my collect calls [from prison],” Herman told me. “That meant so much to me.”

When I got home and opened the heavy bag, I found an elegant octagonal brassĀ  paperweight, on which was carved, “Naomi, Thanks for being there.”

Of all the gifts I’ve received in my life–the treasures that remind me of marvelous events and beloved people–this paperweight is the most treasured. Unlike my other ones which cluster nowadays on a window ledge, Herman’s paperweight sits on my desk where I look at it every day, and smile.

I’m thrilled and happy for Herman and will be among the first to buy his book.

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